Cambridge's leading amateur theatre production company

Established 1981

Nicholas Nickleby
by  Charles Dickens adapted by Nick Warburton      directed by Colin Lawrence

The ADC Theatre, Cambridge, December 2011

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Two Reviews of Nicholas Nickleby
by Margaret Clark & Chris Avery

The RSC allowed themselves the luxury of eight and a half hours playing time for their production of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980.   Nick Warburton confined himself to two and half hours including an interval, and what a marvellous job he made of it. The literary world is now celebrating the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth and this production by BAWDS and Combined Actors at the ADC Theatre, was a worthy contribution to the festivities.  Not having read the novel, on arriving home I fell upon a copy of 'Who's Who in Dickens' and very soon the characters and narrative were laid out before me.  I could now appreciate, even more, Nick's skilful adaptation with set scenes and narrations to link them.

 It appeared to me on the evening I attended that everyone I knew in the Cambridge amateur theatre scene was either in the audience or on stage, for over 30 actors brought Dickens' characters to life.  There were many outstanding performances; a brave and handsome Nicholas Nickleby (Chris Hudson) his scatterbrained mother (Cathy McCluskey) and beautiful sister Kate (Alexandra Fye) whom Nicholas rescues from the amorous attentions of the dissolute Sir Mulberry Hawk (Richard Sockett).  Then there was  the unscrupulous money lending relative Ralph Nickleby (Peter Simmons), and the rejected Smike (Ian Nutt), surely one of the most pathetic creatures in the annals of the theatre,  the careworn office clerk Newman Noggs (Graham Waterhouse), and the Cheeryble brothers (Malcolm Underwood and David Foyle) who came to the Nickleby family's rescue.  At Dotheboys' Hall was the reptilian cane-wielding Squeers (Barry Brown) and his brimstone and treacle bearing wife (Suzanne Jones).  Finally, Mr. Vincent Crummles (Guy Holmes) a red and white chequered explosion onto the stage encapsulating the joy of the theatre.  Space prevents the listing of further names but all gave a rounded performance. In fact, ladies, I have not overlooked you but under a sea of white mob caps, perhaps it is my eyes, you all looked alike and others wore large bonnets, but I did recognise some voices. 

The narrators spoke their lines with energy and a good pace was kept throughout.
The set scenes were concise and retained the interest of the audience as we galloped through the novel's 65 chapters. Dotheboys Hall conveyed the fear and despair that Dickens discovered in his tour of the North Riding.  Crummles' scene from Romeo and Juliet was a highlight as the thespians in the audience appreciated Smike's wonder 'Is it true I am to be an actor?' and then the cry of disillusion 'I cannot learn the words.' Ralph Nickleby's contrition and demise were moving and masterly portrayed.The versatile set designed by Tony Broscomb and Pattie Jones of the Penguins depicted the City skyline while the alleyways of old London framed a raised acting area allowing the actors to spill down to the stage.  The Victorian costumes, supervised by Judy Hanson, were a delight and I dread to think of the hire bill total.  Lighting and sound were in the experienced hands of Mark Easterfield and Graham Potter while the live music was supervised by Mike Milne.

Congratulations to playwright, Nick Warburton on condensing this very long novel into one evening, and to director, Colin Lawrence for dealing with the logistics of a formidable saga.To cast and crew and to anyone I have overlooked, be proud!   The audience left the theatre in a rosy glow having seen, in Mr Crummles' words, 'a family drama' worth every penny of the very reasonable admission cost.  The amateur theatre scene in Cambridge is in very talented and capable hands and I look forward to the productions announced for 2012.

 P.S.  There were two 'firsts' in this production: Ken Eason sang, and David Foyle was described as an 'old' man!

* * * * *

Having only a sketchy idea of the plot of Nicholas Nickleby, I consulted Wikipedia, and found that the novel runs to 700 pages, with a vast array of characters and episodes which left me boggling! So the first congratulations of this review must go to Nick Warburton, who managed to condense this rambling epic into a tight, fast moving script, with a well delineated cast of main characters, supplemented by several narrators who kept the story moving along. As the scene moved from London to Yorkshire, we saw the various misfortunes befalling Nicholas, his widowed mother and his sister Kate, orchestrated by his amoral uncle, Ralph, and Nicholas's heroic attempts to stand out against his uncle's schemes.

The set was presented on an open stage to the audience as they entered, and this gave us plenty of time to admire the impressive graphic art, depicting on one side of a central arch an urban setting and on the other a rural one. A block of steps leading to a raised platform centre stage was inventively used for schoolroom and street scenes, with downstage being used for scenes in the Nicklebys' cottage, with basic pieces of furniture, props and sound and lighting effects indicating the change of location.

My main impression of this show was of a colourful, ever changing scene, full of movement, with the episode rapidly following episode to keep the momentum of the story. Great entertainment, although it did result in the loss of the odd line as actors, keen not to let the pace drop, occasionally talked across one another or just slightly fluffed their words. Some of the lines spoken from the back of the stage were, just occasionally, difficult to hear as well. However, there were some excellent opportunities for characterisation which was seized upon by this talented cast, notably the Yorkshire Squeers family, the odious Sir Mulberry Hawk and his cronies, and the rollicking Crummles theatre company. This was the ultimate ensemble performance and the many cast members combined (no pun intended!) to form a whole that was definitely more than the sum of its parts.
 
Many congratulations to all concerned with this production, but especially to director Colin Lawrence for orchestrating so many fine elements to produce a show that was well up there with the best of these Christmas offerings from BAWDS and Combined.